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How Josh Adams and Notre Dame’s new smashmouth run game are leading the way for the Irish

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This overhauled offense is built around the ground.

USC v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Notre Dame has always been a pretty strong running team under Brian Kelly. Since he took over in 2010, the Irish ranked as a top-10 rushing unit by S&P+ on three occasions, with their worst output (2016) still coming in at 36th. Their use of tight ends and emphasis on linemen playing in three-point stances have always pushed towards a downhill approach.

The hire of Chip Long from Memphis figured to bring in more RPOs (run/pass options). Instead, Notre Dame has doubled down on smashmouth football, with a playbook full of ways to shove opponents out of the way. As a result, they’re currently first in opponent-adjusted rushing S&P+ and second in yards per carry. Lead back Josh Adams is averaging 9.2 yards per carry, while QB Brandon Wimbush is at 6.2 himself, before even accounting for sack yardage. ND’s gone over 330 rushing yards five times in seven games, only being slowed by the elite run defenses of Michigan State and Georgia.

Here’s how the Irish have built one of the nation’s most imposing run games.

1. They pared down the passing game to mostly include run constraints.

Notre Dame already took on one of the toughest challenges for any run-first offense: a solid Mark Dantonio Spartans defense. Michigan State loves to gang up on the run, and its better teams are generally good at sniffing out and destroying your favorite runs.

So Long’s Irish came at them early with screens and play-action shots intended to force the Spartans to back out of the box or risk a quick death. Here was the big shot that set up an early scoring drive:

The Irish happened to catch Sparty in a corner blitz, which helped, as it paired their best deep threat receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on Michigan State’s less-speedy safety, Matt Morissey.

Then they finished the drive with a lead QB draw once the Spartans had been lulled into a pass defense.

Wimbush is well above average as a running QB. His cut off the center’s block was nicely precise.

In their recent triumph over USC, the first-year starter threw only 19 passes and completed about half of them for only 120 yards but also two scores.

The Irish don’t throw exceptionally, but they throw well enough to hurt teams for loading up against their run game, and that’s no small deal.

2. They’ve diversified their run game portfolio.

Long changed up the run game considerably, bringing his own emphasis on gap schemes and using the QB in the option game. With formations that regularly include one or two TEs and then a QB who can keep the ball 10 to 20 times a game, it’s difficult to get numbers up front to stop their favorite runs.

Take this power sweep against USC:

The Irish run it like a power-read play for Wimbush, but it looks to be a jet sweep all the way. Notre Dame is running it from a double TE set, and the RB in the backfield, Tony Jones Jr., has been a devastating lead blocker. St. Brown cracks inside while Jones looks for the unblocked CB and ends up blocking the corner into a safety while a linebacker makes the tackle after a first down.

When the Irish add a real QB read, it doesn’t make it any easier:

This is a counter-trey play that lots of teams are running these days, in which the offense pulls the guard and tackle, then protects the backside by reading the end with the QB. When USC’s end tries to crash in on the run, there’s no one left to handle Wimbush. Everyone else followed the pulling blockers to stop Adams ... and with good reason.

Here’s what Adams can do behind two pulling linemen:

This run game is a throwback to the old days, with its minimal reliance on zone blocking and heavy use of pulling guards and tackles. It’s not a fun offense for opponents, given how many angles it creates even before you add in the option elements with Wimbush or the play-action shots to St. Brown.

3. This is phenomenal, athletic, and experienced run game personnel.

The biggest issue is that these players are all really good. Left tackle Mike McGlinchey is a redshirt senior and, along with redshirt junior left guard Quenton Nelson, is a likely NFL draft pick in 2018. That tandem combines a lot of size (6’8, 310 for McGlinchey and 6’5, 325 for Nelson) with shocking mobility that has translated cleanly to the new scheme. The other three OL have come a ways since 2016, when the left side was often held back by failings elsewhere.

The Irish have multiple TEs they like. Two of the top four receivers come from that group, and both (Alize Mack and Durham Smythe) are upperclassmen. St. Brown is as lethal a deep threat as you’ll find and an upperclassman and second-year starter.

Wimbush and Adams have breakaway speed, to really hurt teams when they get loose into space, but both are also fairly big and can be punishing runners. Wimbush is 6’2, 228 while Adams is 6’2, 219. Both are third-year players, though Wimbush’s in-game experience was minimal.

When you have this many big, talented players working together in a scheme that showcases their best abilities and de-emphasizes their weaknesses, you have a recipe for magic.

It really makes it all the more impressive that Georgia beat this team in South Bend, but we haven’t seen the last of Notre Dame in high-profile games this year.